For years, the joke in the auto industry was that a mass-produced car that runs on hydrogen was always a decade away. That will change next year when Hyundai starts selling a Tucson SUV powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. It will be the first mass-market vehicle of its type to be sold or leased in the US.
"These things are now ready for prime time," John Krafcik, Hyundai's North American chief executive, said last week. His company plans to announce details of the new Tucson tomorrow at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Even as the industry focused on battery-powered and hybrid cars, automakers such as Hyundai, Honda and Toyota kept up research on fuel cells. Now they appear to have conquered obstacles such as high costs, safety concerns and a lack of filling stations. These vehicles could help the companies meet stricter future fuel-economy standards.
Automakers have been dabbling in hydrogen-powered cars since the 1960s. General Motors announced a test fleet of hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinoxes in the mid-2000s, and Honda leased about two-dozen FCX Clarity models for USD 600 per month starting in 2005.
President George W Bush allocated USD 1.2 billion for hydrogen research and said in his 2003 State of the Union address: "The first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free." But the program was largely scrapped by the Obama administration, which focused more on battery-powered vehicles.
Hyundai now is making Bush's forecast come true, beating other auto companies to the mass market with Tucsons that have electric motors powered by a stack of hydrogen fuel cells. Hyundai plans to start selling the vehicles in Southern California and eventually spread to other areas as filling stations are built.
Hyundai says it has overcome safety and storage issues with a rear-mounted tank that has passed numerous crash tests without incident. As for filling stations, the California Air Resources Board says there currently are nine open to the public in the state. Legislators recently allocated about USD 200 million per year for 100 more, to be built by 2023.
Also at the Los Angeles show, Honda Motor Co is scheduled to show off a fuel-cell concept vehicle, which it says hints at the aerodynamic design of the next generation fuel-cell vehicle to be launched in 2015. Further details weren't available.